Sunday, October 24, 2010

Danville and Danville VA Center

My friend Phil graciously walked with me the last day of the walk, displaying great courtesy and patience. He also brought along his camera. I'm very grateful for that.

Phil gave me permission to display his pictures here, and I thank him for that.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Danville's Fine War Museum and Memorials

Elijah and His Dad Showed Me the Memorials

Sparky Knew Me as Soon as I Entered the Museum. He's the Heart and Soul of the Place.

Jim Dill, Photographer and Guide

Made it!

Jim Dill and Rob just over Indiana Border

The Border is Actually Right Here

Phil Finally Agrees to Be in a Picture!

Rob and Phil's Trudge Nears Its End

Yes, This Sign Is Well Past the Border, but It's Big

Channel 15 News, Just Before Leaving the VA Center

VA Hospital in Danville, Illinois, September 30, 2010

The reception I got from the staff and veterans at the VA Center and Hospital in Danville, Illinois, was overwhelming. The staff had brought out everyone they could. It was a beautiful day. I certainly never expected the hero's welcome and all the applause I got. Each time a group applauded me, I told them I took the applause as being for all of our veterans.

Great Reception at the VA

Rob Enters VA with Entourage

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Danville Photo

Phil Hamer and Rob Siedenburg Leaving VA Center

Only 4 miles to go to the Indiana border, after our visit to the Danville VA Center. Photo courtesy of Jim Dill.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Day 30, September 30—Destination Indiana Border (but with a Detour)

Present-day Danville was the site of a Piankeshaw Indian ( village. The Piankeshaws were part of the larger Miami Indian Nation. The Spaniards who passed through the area in search of El Dorado, or at least in search of gold, in the 1590s noted the village. French explorers and trappers also mentioned the village at a much later date. By about 1800, the Potawatomies and Kickapoo had moved into the area, and the Piankeshaws moved west of the Mississippi, somewhere along the Missouri River.

In 1819, a party of men came to the southeast corner of present-day Oakwood Township, where they found bark-lined shallow wells, which Native Americans had long used to make salt. There are two rivers named “the Vermilion River.” One flows generally southerly and later empties into the Wabash River near present-day Cayuga, Indiana. The other flows about 90 miles northwesterly and empties into the Illinois River near Oglesby, Illinois. The north-flowing Vermilion has some serious white water (Wildcat Rapids, class II to class III water) between Lowell and Oglesby, but it’s now closed to rafting and boating because of a number of fatal accidents. There are also two streams called “the Little Vermilion,” one flowing into the Illinois and the other into the Wabash.
Before so much of Illinois’s swampland was drained for farming, the north-flowing Vermilion, which actually arises in Ford County, Illinois, drained into marshland near present-day Roberts.

To further complicate matters, there are two counties, one in Illinois, and the other in Indiana, the Illinois one spelled “Vermilion,” and the Indiana county spelled “Vermillion.”

The Native Americans had named the rivers for the reddish-brown color of the water, which was caused by deposits of copperas stone, of the same color. The early European settlers began processing salt soon after their arrival, and that production would continue until lower-priced salt could be shipped to the port at Chicago from the rich deposits on the Kanawha River, which eventually flows into the Ohio River at  Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

Danville is the county seat of Vermilion County, Illinois. It wasn’t actually the first county seat, but it has been the county seat since it was established. The city was founded in 1827 on 60 acres of land donated by Guy W. Smith and 20 acres donated by Daniel W. Beckwith, who was to die of pneumonia about 8 years later, following a horseback ride from Washington, when he was only 40 years old. Williams and Beckworth platted the original town of Danville. Beckwith is said to have suggestion the names “Williamsburg” and “Williamstown,” after the man in whose house the first post office would be set up, one Amos Williams, but the town would take Beckwith’s first name as its basis.

Beckwith came from Pennsylvania, where he had been born in 1795. As a young man he moved west to Indiana, and he made his first trip to the future site of Danville with some of the earliest settlers in 1819. He was interested in the salt springs found in the Vermilion River. The area near and under Danville contained an immense deposit of coal, known as the “Danville Member,” which extended well into Indiana. Along Interstate 74 west of Danville, you can see the results of the open-pit mining that exploited some of that mineral. Some of the first open-pit mining in the world is believed to have been done right near Danville.

Some of the aftermath of the mining looks a bit like a warscape, but much of the mined area was converted into recreational lakes that now form part of the Kickapoo State Recreation Area and Kennekuk Cove County Park.
Danville has had an illustrious history, and boasts many home town people in show business. A number of local streets bear the pictures of some of those celebrities, who are almost too numerous to list. If you know who Gene Hackman and Dick and Jerry Van Dyke are, then you have a good start on the star-studded list of actors who come from Danville.

On September 20, 1838, a group of Pottawatomi Indians, who were being forcibly removed from Indiana to Kansas, camped at Danville. The Indiana officials who had escorted the Indians that far turned them over to the Illinois Indian agent, who took them the rest of the way to Kansas.

Danville is home to a number of industries including Motion Industries, Cronkhite Industries, Mervis Industries, Greenwood Plastics, Troxel Industries, Bryant Industries, McLane Trucking, Autozone, Blue CrossBlue Shield. and Mid State Industries. Unfortunately many of the jobs that once abounded in industrialized Danville are now to be found in Indonesia and China, and the area has experienced an economic turn-down.

Danville is home to Danville Area Community College, a large state correctional facility, a veterans’ center (formerly a VA hospital), and a federal cemetery. A recent teacher wage contract dispute is now settled, and the kids are happily back in school.

Oh, yes. I almost forgot. Abe Lincoln spoke from the balcony of the home of his friend Dr. William Fithian (after whom nearby Fithian is named) in September 1858. Lincoln had first visited Danville to represent Dr. Fithian in a court case. The two had become acquainted in the Illinois house, when both served there back in the 1830s. Of course the Eighth Judicial Circuit, presided over by Judge Davis, also met in Danville, and Lincoln followed those sessions.
The Vermilion County Museum features Dr. Fithian’s house. The claim is made that the bed where Lincoln slept, the window through which he stepped, and the balcony from which he spoke are preserved just as they were at his last visit to his friend and supporter, Fithian. To that I say, it’s probably time to change the sheets.

I arrived in Danville, footsore and weary (OK, it was my knees that really hurt; my feet were fine) in the afternoon on Wednesday. I’m really glad I didn’t stop for the day in Hillery, because Thursday’s walk, though one of my shortest, was for some reason one of the most difficult.

The friends whom I met in Ogden, who invited me into their home for coffee, told me about a place in Tilton, just south of Danville on Gilbert. They said I really had to see it and eat there, so I headed south across the bridge to Tilton. The joint is called “Gros’ Burger,” and it is classic Americana. The owner (last name of Gros) served with the U.S. Marines. He has turned the restaurant into a place to honor Marines, and he’s done a great job of it.

I had a triple cheeseburger, Gros fries, and a Pepsi. If you remember small-town American, when hamburgers ruled the land, you’ll enjoy Gros’ Burger. Those burgers are definitely a cut above. Try it; you’ll like it. When I had finished eating, I went out to the pickup and got some of my walk flyers. I gave one to the owner, who, as it happened, had seen Mary Kay Sweikar’s excellent front-page article the previous day (Tuesday) on the first page of the Danville Commerical News.

Mr. Gros seized a very large hand bell and rang it vigorously. After he had everyone’s attention, he said, “We have a celebrity in the house. This is the man you read about in yesterday’s paper. He’s walking across Illinois to support our troops and veterans.” The place rang with applause, and everyone wanted a flyer. Many shook my hand, and I thanked the veterans for their service.

As I was leaving the restaurant, I got a call from Mary Kay, who had just gotten a call from the Danville Veterans Center and Hospital. She gave me the phone number, and I called Tresa in Volunteer Services at the VA. She asked what time on Thursday I would be walking past the entrance. She wanted to have some vets out on Main Street when I walked past. After we had chatted for about 10 minutes, we left it that I would detour through the VA center on the way to the border.

I decided to drive home to my own cushy bed, sweet wife, supper table, Wi-Fi hookup, and so forth, and thus it was that at 6:30 Thursday morning I was driving east on I-74 to get back to the War Memorial in Danville so I could start my walk again on my final day.

Flag, Bike, and Pickup, with WWI Memorial in Background
The package on the luggage rack holds walk brochures for the residents of the V.A. Center and Hospital.

WWI Memorial and Flag in Danville

An old friend (old refers to the age of the friendship rather than of the friend), Phil Hamer, a Marine veteran, had offered to walk with me on my last day, and I was grateful. Of course being a bit corny, I had to quip that I had a Marine escort through town for my safety and protection. Phil had thoughtfully positioned his pickup just across the border in Indiana at a local roofing company, which had graciously permitted him to leave it there. That would save me a ride back through Danville.

Of course riding back would have shown the flag one last time, but with the high, gusting wind that began blowing toward noon, putting the bike in the back of Phil’s pickup to return to my pickup turned out to be a blessing. In fact at one point, during a radio station interview, the bike blew over, breaking off the mounting bracket for the tail light.

Phil and I were just starting the walk when A. J. Bayatpour, a video journalist from Channel 15 News pulled up and wanted an interview. That interview ( delayed the start of the walk by more than 20 minutes, but I had learned to take press and other media coverage where I could get it, and all media coverage, including this interview, was supportive of the troops.

Phil pointed out the Walldogs murals along the way (I would get to feast my eyes on more of them later). [Marine protection or not, Phil’s knowledge of the local area was invaluable to me on Thursday’s walk, and I really enjoyed the fellowship along the way.] The Walldogs are artists from as far away as New Zealand (there’s a signpost downtown that tells the distances to their homes), who came an painted lovely murals throughout Danville’s downtown area. The Tourist and Convention Center has a booklet for sale for $5.00 that is well worth the money. If you get to spend some time in Danville, by all means pick one up.
We had calculated the distance to the Indiana border at about 6 miles or so, but the detour into the VA Center added possibly another mile.

Also, our start was delayed by the Channel 15 News interview and by a second interview with three local radio stations. The visit to the VA gave us the opportunity to shake hands with many patients and residents, as well as with many staff members and volunteers. Anthony met us out at the entrance and walked with us the entire time we were on the compound, giving us some real insights into the history and development of the place. I want to delve into that history because it’s quite a story. Anthony asked a fellow employee to e-mail me some of the history, along with some of the pictures she took Thursday, and I’m looking forward to getting that e-mail.

Danville friends of mine, Jimmy and Nicky Dill, not only drove out in separate vehicles to the VA to greet me, but later they fed me black bean chili at their home, and Jimmy also accompanied me to the War Museum and to another veterans memorial near their home. In addition he came out to the Indiana border and took a number of pictures with his digital camera. I got to spend some time with their son Elijah, a fine young gentleman. Now I just have to figure out how to get the pictures from Jimmy, because his computer is in the computer hospital at the moment, and he’s without e-mail.

I’ll skip the history of the VA Center for now and talk a bit about the veterans I met. Some are confined to wheel chairs. Some are quite mobile, but have serious medical problems. Some had tears running down their faces as we grasped each other’s hands and talked. One elderly gentleman sang me a hymn about finishing our journey. Of course the hymn was about our spiritual journey, but I found it appropriate for the last day of the walk.

One group of vets wanted their picture with me, and I was honored to stand with them. Some of these men are from what Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation,” World War II veterans, who helped keep not only this country, but much of the world free from tyranny, at least until the next outbreak of egoistic insanity on the part of a national leader somewhere on the face of this green earth.

Before we left the grounds, Anthony handed me a small, velveteen bag with a draw-string, with the words “Thanks for all you do” on the outside, and a beautiful flag pin honoring veterans on the inside. I was overwhelmed. I apologize for not remembering the names of all the staff members who accompanied me (Tim was interviewed on the Channel 15 News program). Anthony led us into one of the 2 chapels that are collocated on the grounds. The building is beautiful, inside and out.

The Center impressed me, especially with the spirit of the veterans and the big-heartedness of the staff. Hey, I’m a veteran, and sooner or later I’ll need care of one kind or another in that facility. One of the ladies said I should come see her; she’d give me a job. When I asked Anthony about that, he said the offer was probably legitimate if she wasn’t wearing pink pajamas. Anthony shook my hand back out at Main Street. I was emotionally exhausted, but I wouldn’t have missed the visit for the world. Thanking and honoring vets is what this walk has been about, and this visit meant a lot to me.

Phil and I didn't think it could be too much farther to the border, but two people said it was about 4 miles. How could one of my shorter daily walks be so long? But we made it. Along the route of march, many people honked, waved, gave us a thumbs up, or stopped to thank us for walking. One older man (well, older than I am, in any case) stopped and gave me a 10-dollar bill and told me to get myself a good lunch after I finished the walk.

As we passed the large Danville Correctional facility on our right, I joked to Phil and said we should pick up the pace a bit so we wouldn't get invited inside. He opined that it might be best to not seem in so much of a hurry, so the guards in the towers wouldn't think we were escapees. I'm not sure I would have had the stamina to pick up the pace, in any case.

If my watch (a gift from my son for the walk; it has a compass and a thermometer) and memory serve me correctly, we wrapped up the walk (and the photo session) at about 12:30 p.m. I had crossed Illinois, and I was standing in a verdant stand of Canada thistles in front of a large sign welcoming motorists to Indiana (though we were actually 100 feet or so into Indiana. Someone asked how I felt, and I said, "tired."

Phil and I went inside the roofing business to thank them for letting him park his pickup there. Then I took a small screwdriver out of my pocket and disassembled the PVC pipe that has held the flag staff from the luggage rack on the bike, and we put the bike, pipe, and flag into bed of Phil's pickup and headed back west to our starting point. I'm sure glad I hadn't planned 11 miles that day, and I'm very grateful to Phil, Jimmy, Anthony, Tim, A. J., and everyone  else who was so kind to me during my walk through Danville.

Phil gave me a mini tour of the Walldog murals, but it will take another visit to do them justice.

Danville also has a great War Museum, which I mentioned a few paragraphs earlier, a must-see for veterans and for those interested in military history. If you visit the museum, Sparky will likely show you around. To my amazement, when I entered the building a couple of hours after the walk ended, he came up to me, shook my hand, and thanked me for my walk across Illinois. He had recognized me from my picture in the paper. He gave us a great tour in the short time we had (the museum was closing in less than an hour), and I learned enough to know that I want to return to see and hear more.

I admit to being overwhelmed by the cultural, historical, artistic, and military connections in Danville. It would take lots more study and research to begin to delve into them. Danville may be down (economic downturn and loss of jobs), but she is certainly not out. The long history, the Walldog murals, the old downtown theater being refurbished, the great museums, and the connection to so many celebrities gives Danville a certain vibrancy. Danville was home to the state’s first African American fire station, depicted in a mural near the office of the Commerical News. The old station building is still standing, not far from the home of my friends the Dills.

Friend Elijah at Danville's Beautiful Vietnam War Memorial

I admit to being very weary from one of my very shortest walks of the overall journey.  (It didn't help that I was so excited Thursday morning that I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and couldn't go back to sleep. As you can see, I’m also a couple of days behind on getting this blog posted. Several people have asked me to keep it going. Others have asked that I turn the blog into a book. Meanwhile I’m off to other adventures, teaching English at the University of Illinois, another whole story.

Before I log off, though, I’ll tell you that I plan to enhance this blog entry with photos, once they’re available (primarily from Phil, Jimmy, and the lady who took pictures at the VA). And I’ll add this little note. When I was in Lincoln, I wanted to hook up with fellow veteran and Army officer Lon Simpson, who is a master craftsman of period furniture made from wood. I mentioned in a post some time ago that I discovered that he had been recalled to active duty with the Army, and was serving in Baghdad, Iraq.

Yesterday I received a letter in the mail from Columbus, Georgia. I couldn’t imagine what it was about, so I opened it with great curiosity. It turned out to be from a friend of Lon Simpson, who is now stationed nearby. It seems this friend was reading my blog one day and was amazed to see the name of a good friend. Thanks to this thoughtful person, I now have a mail address and a phone number for Major Simpson, whom I hope to contact soon.

Paige, thank you for your thoughtfulness and kindness.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Day 29, September 29—Destination the West Side of Danville

About 12 miles west of Danville is the little town of Muncie, which has about 200 inhabitants. (The 2000 Census recorded 155, but the population sign claims 200.) They continued their Christmas tradition form 28 years, with the Muncie Baptist Church putting on a live nativity scene along the alleyway behind the church building from 6:00 to 8:30 p.m. on the first Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights in December.

When Mary and I attended that event a few years ago, we were surprised to see a couple of camels tied up. Of course there were also the usual farm animals that might well have been in or near a stable in Bible times.

I don’t think it’s a sister city thing, but the camels come from Muncie, Indiana. The church is a friendly place, and they even build half an hour of fellowship time into their Sunday morning schedule: Sunday school 9:00 a.m., Fellowship time 10:00, Worship service 10:30. Sadly, the lady who got the live nativity started passed away about 5 years ago. Then the pastor of many years left. Then they had to get camels from Ohio, and finally the company that owned the camels started charging $3000. Others had started competing live nativity scenes, perhaps inspired by the one in Muncie, so last year (2009) they decided not to have the event. It’s a loss.

I met a very young 83-year-old lady in town who had recently acquired a horse-drawn sleigh. Along with the sleigh, she got photos, stories, and a complete history. The sleigh was complete rebuilt a few years ago by some Amish people in Columbia, Missouri, and it’s in mint condition. The new owner is hoping for at least one sleigh ride (she doesn’t have a horse), and she is planning to display the sleigh on the porch of a large house in town at Christmas time this year.

Just about a mile and a half 3 miles southwest of Muncie, was Conkeytown, laid out by Jeff Conkey in 1839. Matt Smith’s CafĂ© was the scene of many battles among the feuding Cannons, Hayses, and Phelpses. The men of these families were all of very large stature and heavy build, and they all loved to brawl. The story is also told of a colorful local by the name of Jim Knox, who would stand behind a mule and let it kick him in the chest, without so much as batting an eye.

The town soon had a store, a blacksmith shop, a gristmill, and a post office. Things seemed peaceful enough until Matt Smith from Danville opened a dancehall, wine room, restaurant, and a few sleeping rooms. Smith brought in some show girls from Ohio, and their evening productions packed out the place, drawing young men from far and wide.

Conkeytown also served as an Army recruiting station during the Civil War. Jim Knox and Jim Cannon were pretty wild until their conversions at a little church that still stands near the old Conkeytown. Instrumental in their spiritual awakening was the Reverned Thomas Fulton, who, like some other preachers of his day, was reputed to be a very good fighter.

Like many other early local towns, Conkeyville eventually faded away and is no more.
Oakwood is home to a very dynamic high school football team. It was also the home town of Darrin Fletcher, who played baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Montreal Expos, and the Toronto Bluejays. He played professional ball from 1989 until his midseason retirement in 2002.
American actress Angela Watson was born on November 12, 1975 in Danville, and she grew up in Oakwood. She’s probably best known for her role in the sitcom Step by Step, which I confess to never having seen. Watson grew up as the youngest in the family on their farm near Oakwood, until she was 10, when her parents moved the family to Cape Coral, Florida, and began entering her in beauty pageants. She did well, and she would eventually win 60 crowns and 200 trophies. In Dallas Texas, when she was only 13, she won Model of the Year. She would later graduate from John Burroughs High School in Burbank, California.
Watson is on the Screen Actors Guild National Board of Directors. She also founded Child Actors Supporting Themselves (CAST), an organization that trains child actors and athletes to handle their finances and that aims to help protect them from those who would take financial advantage of them. She hasn’t been in any major movies that I know of, but it seems she keeps busy with various philanthropic causes.
On Oakwood Road there are several support our troop signs, listing the name and branch of service of the person from Oakwood who is defending our nation. That’s an awesome concept, and I believe I’ll try to implement something like it in Champaign when this walk is over.

The support-our-troops signs are made and put up by a lady who is a resident of Oakwood. She and her husband started the practice, and she has kept it up since his death. I salute her for this fine and important work, and for showing such great support for our troops.

Support Our Troops Signs in Oakwood

Oakwood was founded in 1870 and became a coal-mining center in the 1890s. There was actually a competing settlement, also called “Oakwood,” that was started around 1868, but  whose cemetery has burials as old as 1838. That Oakwood is about a mile and a quarter south of Muncie, and the cemetery is still there. Though the sign at the entrance says “McFarland Cemetery,” some locals call it the “Dalbey Cemetery.” Both titles derive from local family names.

When the Glenburn Mine closed in 1898, the town of Glenburn, not far to the northeast of Oakwood, perished with it. Some of the buildings (at least 5 houses) were moved to Oakwood following the demise of that mine. Some of the miners travelled on foot to other mines in the area, and some simply left the area. The old Glenburn store continued in operation, run by Oliver M.  VanAllen’s three lovely daughters, and did not close until some time in the 1950s.

Oakwood itself started life as Oakwood Station on the Indianapolis, Bloomington, and Western Railroad, which crossed Oakwood Township in 1870 and 1871. The town at the station was platted in April, 1870, just 5 months before Muncie would be platted, in September of the same year. In 1871 Henry Dulin opened a drug and grocery store, and a Dr. Gavin opened a practice. 

Later that same year, a terrible fire, fanned by high winds, burned almost the entire village. Two local shopkeepers by the name of Johns and Stewart were financially ruined. Henry Dulin rebuilt his store and later became postmaster. The fire even destroyed the railroad depot, only partially built at the time.

The following year, 1872, a smallpox epidemic struck Oakwood and the surrounding communities. Oakwood reported 15 cases, with 2 deaths, and nearby Muncie and Fithian fared even worse. But Oakwood weathered this disaster too, and by 1874 there were 12 houses and 4 buildings that housed businesses.

Oakwood is a genuine community, with community spirit and a determination to persevere. People have lovely yards and flower gardens, and the major business, as elsewhere in this rural area, is agriculture, with corn and soybean fields coming right up to the edge of town. I would venture that it’s a great place to live and raise kids.

Lovely Fall Marigolds in Oakwood

Not far south of Oakwood is a little winery. I'm used to seeing grapes grown on hill soil, but the grapes in this vineyard seem to be thriving.

Verdant Grape Vines

Sign at Entrance to Sleepy Creek Vineyards

East of Oakwood, U.S. 150 turns toward the northeast and skirts Kickapoo State Park, then crosses I-74, where it runs through, Hillery, an unincorporated community in Danville Township, Vermilion County. From there Route 150 runs along Danville’s Main Street. It crosses a bridge into Danville proper, originally called the “Victors’ Bridge,” but later renamed to honor Korean War veterans. Just to the right, immediately following the bridge, is a statue of what looks like a Greek god with a sword, and the names of World War I veterans are inscribed on the sides of the obelisk that supports the statue. An American Flag on a flagpole waves high above the statue.

God willing, I’ll start the last leg of my walk on the north side of Danville’s Main Street right at the war memorial at 8:00 a.m. Thursday (tomorrow). Only one more day to go.